Open Letter to a Bubble

Colby Case
BFA SC 2024

Last summer, I bought a six-pack of bubble blowers at the pharmacy and used up a bottle on the way home. I dipped the wand and held it out toward the street, letting the air spin bubbles into space, nearing the concrete before billowing upwards — a gentle and temporary reminder of my own presence. I wondered if anyone else had the chance to see them. The thing about soap bubbles, whether animated by breath or machine, is that they are distinctly human. I’ve spent a good amount of time looking at bubbles, and there’s a lot to learn if you just sit and watch. If they’re big enough, you can tell by their complexion when they’re going to pop. They lose their
iridescence and become deathly pale right before they explode into spittle. The grief that comes at the loss of a bubble is hardly grief at all. Bubbles are an embodiment of air. The end of a bubble isn’t a death but a return to the invisible.

Two weeks ago, I was trying to cradle a glob of glass with a handheld metal frame during my monitor shift at the foundry. It was stored in my locker, and as I reached for my work jacket, the glass slid out from underneath and shattered. I stared at it, motionless, trying to ignore my sudden nausea. I spent the next four hours of my shift with a gnawing pit in my stomach.

Supposedly, glass is a fluid. I look around at the glass stretched across windows and thresholds, nearly invisible, altering the path of the air around it. A membrane dangerously suspended above the ground, more so suspended in time. A fluid playing the part of a solid. We can rub our hands up and down it, place it between our teeth. But eventually, unceremoniously, it will reach the ground, leaving its relationship with the air, and it will break. If we are eager enough, we can make it molten
again, fastening it back into the same shape, laid flush and inconspicuous. If only my body received the same grace. To be laid out smooth, to change shape. That grief feels different.

Prying my eyes away from the broken glass on the foundry floor, I called my twin. She has always known what to say when it gets like this, even when we were kids. She instructed me to breathe in and out with her until I felt my heartbeat settle. I ended up pouring another glass glob onto the metal, filling the empty outline of the first. The nausea went away.

When I was younger, I rarely had the time or the trust to be alone. Navigating the abrasive world was incredibly overwhelming. I needed time, on my own terms, to be alone and digest all of the input I was surrounded by. I learned to savor small moments of privacy. Washing my hands in the bathroom, once I knew no one was there, I would press my fingers together and slowly draw them
apart until a small portal emerged. I would bring the portal up to my face, iridescent and impossibly fragile, and make a promise.

Glass object by the author

As time has passed, the promises I made in front of the bathroom mirror are increasingly difficult to remember, but the pain still clings to me. In the times I’d hide in the bathroom, the tension in my stomach turning unbearable with each footstep outside, I would cry out for my twin. She’d crawl under the locked stall door and sit with me until I regained my breath. Together, we’d wash the flush from my face and reenter the outside world. I don’t know who I’d be today without her. And despite my bad texting, she’ll remain on the other line. Still, it’s a lot easier to forget the bubble and keep the pearl.

Let me elaborate: The bubble opposes the pearl. A pearl is created from something abrasive being in a place it shouldn’t. Nonetheless, it remains, and through that tension, it becomes beautiful, the pain marbled across its skin, transforming into desire. Passed from hand to hand, the pain stays with it. Alternatively, a bubble is born, slick and radiant, from an exhalation, a breath. In the air,
it takes shape. It then returns, invisible and graceful, to the nothingness, so unimaginably vast that it envelops our entire planet. Our atmosphere: a bubble around the world. The bubble’s strength lies in its dissolution. As it dissolves, so do the emotions it encapsulates: boundless and ever-changing. Bubbles are best dually witnessed. It’s nice to have another person to help understand when it’s time to take a breath, when it’s time to let go. On the contrary, the pearl is a testament to the endurance of pain and its transformation. Both the bubble and the pearl are defined by transformation — one from pressure, the other from release.

On an entirely different scale, if we were to aim a microscope at a soap bubble, we would find tiny clusters of molecules called micelles. Each molecule is composed of two polarized ends — one attracted to water and the other oil, arranging themselves into layers, then membranes. Not only responsible for soap bubbles, but playing a role in our digestive system, where they separate and absorb fats and vitamins from the food in our intestines. An intricate linking of molecules, two polarized ends intrinsically linked together by circumstance or need.

My twin has never been a hugger. I spent a lot of my childhood sequestered in my room, where, somehow, despite my protesting, she would end up at the foot of my bed. She’d tell me to join her in the kitchen so the food she made wouldn’t get cold. I would sigh, begrudgingly wrap my blanket around my shoulders, and venture outside. The food was always incredible. Even in the actions unnoticed, she is the stabilizing force that ensures our bond remains intact. Invisible yet profoundly present.

Returning to the bubble and the pearl, returning to the middle school bathroom or the phone call outside the foundry, I think about all the times I’ve held onto that pearl, that pit in my stomach, just because of its permanence. Even when I was so close to a few deep inhales and exhales, a repeating pattern in succession, the voice of someone I loved on the other line, to guide me through it, to sit with me and watch it float upwards.

Group bubble-making in the author’s sculpture class

Oh, how I wish to be a bubble! To stretch myself so thin that I encompass negative space itself. To encompass everything without violence, prying, or displacing. To shift between planes without grief, to experience transition without loneliness. To become glassy and seamless, radiant and vulnerable, impossible. If only for a moment. I would do anything. But I was born embodied. I came
into this world screaming, as we all did, the grating of my vocal cords against the new air as the sign that I was alive. Sometimes when I’m alone in my room, I close my eyes and let sounds come out of my mouth. I drone into the empty space until I hear the whole room vibrating in my skull. And it’s at this moment where I can’t feel my weight on the bed, or the pearl in my stomach, and
my body doesn’t have the strength to buoy me inside. And for a brief moment, the fat separates. I can become the room. But eventually, my lungs run out of air. I take a breath, a deep one all the way down to my center. I continue onwards.

I wish that I had a way to fuse all of these ideas together — the bubble and the pearl, the glass, the spittle, the portal or the promise. I used to have a conclusion. I used to have an entirely different piece of writing before it all got lost to iCloud updates or something like that. Nonetheless, I can still acknowledge the undying fragility that a bubble holds. I can remind myself to loosen my grip on the pearl. I think about the joy it gave me as a kid, the joy it gives me now, and the quiet kind of glee two confidants share when they get away with something.

Colby Case is a multidisciplinary artist, fabricator, educator, and bubble enthusiast.